‘We don’t want a repeat of last year’: UCC SU President on being a voice for students

John Bohane talks to Asha Woodhouse, the incoming president of University College Cork’s Students’ Union, about her plans for the role, which include a return to campus for students and tackling accommodation issues
‘We don’t want a repeat of last year’: UCC SU President on being a voice for students

UNIVERSITY College Cork Students’ Union President Asha Woodhouse commenced her new role on Monday, June 14. The 24-year-old became the first female Students’ Union (SU) President in 18 years. Picture credit: Niamh Guiry.

UNIVERSITY College Cork (UCC) Students’ Union president Asha Woodhouse, who stepped into the role last month, is embracing the opportunity to provide a voice for students.

The 24-year-old became the first female UCC Students’ Union president in 18 years after she was elected on the first count.

Asha, who hails from Cathedral Road in Gurranabraher, has settled into her new role with ease.

“The first few days have gone great,” she said. “It is very interesting and exciting. There will be lots to learn as it is such a varied role.

“It is great to give my input on behalf of the students.”

She was delighted to become the first female president in almost two decades.

“I was very proud,” she said. “It was a great honour to break the cycle. I hope that it won’t be another 18 years before another woman follows in this role.

“There is a lot of hesitation on the part of women to go for the leadership role as there is a lot of pressure. We are well able. It is great to have this win for all the women in the college.”

Asha never held a position in the students’ union before running for the role, but has been prominent in various societies within UCC. She admits that she comes from a very activist household.

“I was always into activism growing up,” she said. “It is a very environmental and socially aware household. I just had a great interest from a young age.

“I always had a great interest from an environmental perspective. Since starting college, I have developed a broad interest in various issues and various social issues. I was on the environmental society and I was on the green campus committee. I never held a position in the union before running for this role.

“It kind of came over me that I might as well run for the role of students’ union president. I think over the last year, young people have become more aware, which is great. People have a real appetite for change.

“I really positioned myself during my campaign that I wanted to represent students and I wasn’t in it for any personal gain. There will be a lot of unique challenges. I will do my best to represent all the students.”

The Cork City native completed her undergraduate degree in environmental science at UCC and had just completed the first year of her master’s in environmental law before she started her full-time role.

She will take a sabbatical from her study this year and will resume her master’s when she completes her one-year term as president.

“I had to postpone my post-grad. It wasn’t a tough decision. It felt like the right place and right time. Given the circumstances globally I am not in any rush to finish college. This is an area that I am passionate about. I really believe in returning power to students and to people who the big decisions really affect,” she said.

Asha is looking forward to a “good partnership” with all the various stakeholders at UCC as they seek to enhance the university experience for all.

“We are looking forward to a good partnership,” she said. “Without the students there wouldn’t be a college, so we need to improve the student experience.”

Key for her are “affordable accommodation, no high fees, good facilities and good support services”.

She said: “That is the direction we need to be going in if we are to maintain our standing as one of the best universities.

“I am looking forward to working with all the senior management and trying to steer ourselves in that direction.”

The proposed return to campus life for students from the start of the new academic year is one of her main priorities.

“The big thing we are working on at the moment is the return to campus and trying to get some sort of student experience for our students. We don’t want a repeat of last year, particularly with the high fees we are paying. UCC is a great university.

“It has a beautiful campus. We are really hoping to have students back by the start of the new academic year.

“Last year’s first-year students really missed out on the college experience. The campus experience is such a big part of university life. We are hoping that there will be some blended or hybrid learning. It is going to depend on the public health situation nationwide and we need to have safety nets in place for that.”

Asha said a big thing for UCC was to maintain academic flexibility.

“We need to think about what we want to keep going forward in the post-Covid era,” she said. “A big thing for us is maintaining academic flexibility and accessibility.

“The college adopted a no-detriment policy this year. Students aren’t being penalised for failing exams, which I think we really need to keep up. I have never seen the point in penalising people for failing on the first try. It doesn’t foster a positive learning experience. We will be trying to secure that going forward.

“Other things include health and wellbeing. We are working on introducing an integrated mental health care system within the college because we are anticipating a fourth wave coming out of Covid. We are going to have a serious mental health crisis, particularly with young people.

“All 22,000 students are automatically a member of the union. I am a big believer that a union is only as strong as its members who engage with it. Engagement with all the students has been increasing in recent years, but we want to continue that upward trajectory so that we can continue to represent every student,” she added.

The new students’ union president also has another key topic she wants to prioritise during her term in office.

“Accommodation is a big issue,” she said.

“We are trying to make sure that landlords are registered for renting as that does cause a lot of conflict in the area.

“A big win recently at a national level was the USI Student Accommodation Bill being accepted by the Cabinet. For campus-owned accommodation, students will only have to pay monthly installments and they will no longer have to pay lump sums.”

Asha believes State funding is key to keeping college affordable.

“Overall we need to see a greater increase in investment in students from a government level so that colleges are not turning to their students for income.”

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